I realize I came away with a different reading of an op-ed in today’s New York Times than the one the author intended. Then again, the piece has problems, chiefly in communicating its message.
It opens artfully enough, with a colorful nostalgic description of an influential teacher — an individual with a nickname, “Chopper,” who wore a gruff façade that concealed “a man who loved the cello, American literature and” his students.
It goes on in this vein for three paragraphs. Then comes the fourth, which opens, “Of course, I was a boy then.” I fully expected to read about experiences similar to my own as a student and later a teacher — about how maturity and adulthood shape and clarify naïve impressions of youth. Instead came this:
As a transgender woman, I find it impossible not to look back and wonder, if I’d been female from birth, would I have taken quite so well to Chopper’s method, which, even though I came to love him, did include more than a small measure of intimidation.
The sentence “I was a boy then” was meant quite literally, which perhaps I wasn’t prepared for. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the abrupt transformation from a warm, childhood recollection to another dreary exercise in pedantic demagoguery, which the Times op-ed page has come sadly to specialize in. An example occurs in the very next paragraph:
As the nation’s classrooms welcome back teachers and students, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the methods — and the gender — of your own favorite teacher. A 2006 study by Thomas Dee, now a professor at Stanford, suggested that boys do better in classes taught by men while girls are more likely to thrive in classes taught by women. The study found that girls were more likely to report that they did not think a class would be useful to their future if it was taught by a man, and boys were more likely to say they did not look forward to a particular subject if it was taught by a woman.
I wouldn’t be writing about the Times article at all if the remainder of it consisted of more of the same snooze-inducing references to the differences between the sexes, especially as they impact the “re-sexed.” But the author, Jennifer Finney Boylan, is not aggrieved — not entirely. She (he?) goes on to confess:
This fall, I begin my 25th year as a professor at Colby College, where I spent the first 12 years of my teaching life as a man, and the last 13 as a woman. When I began teaching, I was a young man fresh out of graduate school. I know I felt more comfortable being funny in the classroom back then; as a woman I suspect I seem a little less goofy, a little more serious. But having gone from a world of male privilege to being a member of one of the most marginalized groups in the country, there’s a reason I’m more serious now, a little less carefree. [Emphasis added]
Too bad written discourse doesn’t come with stage directions or signs of the kind that light up in TV studios to signal the audience that it’s time, for example, to “APPLAUD.” If they did, I’d like to think that readers of the highlighted passage would be prompted to “FART.”
I feel sorry for the students Boylan has taught since her sex reassignment. Her early teaching methods remind me of my own. I never stood up on tables, as she claims to have done, but I did try to make learning fun, partly by making it funny. Sometimes this backfired, as when my seventh-grade class acted out Thornton Wilder’s “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden.” To drive home the playwright’s fascination with Japanese theater, especially Noh, in which males play both male and female parts, I assigned myself the role of the young daughter, Caroline. My students howled whenever I delivered one of my lines.
But when all was said and done, those kuds came away not only with an appreciation for the genius of Thornton Wilder but with an ability to think outside the box. I hate to think how that lesson — in life as well as in English — would have turned out if I had been constrained by the kinds of foolish concerns Jennifer Finney Boylan gives utterance to in her Times op-ed.
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